Smith turns to the philosophy of Voluntaryism, discussing how its proponents fought against state control of education in the nineteenth century.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Until 1833 elementary education in England progressed without state aid or interference. Free education on an ambitious scale had been undertaken by Dissenters (non‐​Anglican Protestants) with the establishment, in 1808, of the British and Foreign School Society (originally called the Royal Lancasterian Society). Funded primarily by Dissenting congregations, this used the monitorial system to bring education to the working classes without government assistance. And these efforts motivated Anglicans to form the National Society, which established competing free schools for educating the poor.

Over the next decade government funds were made available to both Dissenters and Anglicans. Each pound from voluntary contributions was matched by the government, up to 20,000 pounds per annum. Because the Anglican schools were receiving more contributions than the Dissenting schools, the former received most of the government funds, so Dissenters began to learn the hard way that government aid to education would serve the prevailing orthodoxy.

Even by 1839, when the Melbourne administration proposed to increase aid to 30,000 pounds per annum, relatively few Dissenters expressed opposition. Most Dissenters approved of, or silently accepted, state funding if it did not favor one religious group over another and if it did not entail state interference. The one Dissenting Deputy who argued that education “is not a legitimate function of the government” could find no support among his peers; and a meeting of Dissenting ministers in 1840 expressed its “satisfaction” with government aid to education.

All this changed in 1843, after Sir James Graham, home secretary under the Peel administration, presented a bill to the House of Commons titled A Bill for Regulating the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Factories, and for the Better Education of Children in Factory Districts. Among other things, this bill required factory children to attend school for at least three hours each day, five days per week; and it placed effective control of these schools (to be financed largely from local rates) in the hands of the Established Church of England. “The Church has ample security,” wrote Graham, “that every master in the new schools will be a Churchman, and that the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, as far as the limited exposition may be carried, will necessarily be in conformity with his creed.”

Dissenting opposition to Graham’s bill was swift and severe. It “set the whole country on fire,” according to one observer. The Eclectic Review, a leading Dissenting journal, declared:

From one end of the empire to the other, the sound of alarm has gone forth, and the hundreds of thousands who have answered to its call have astonished and confounded our opponents. The movement has been at once simultaneous and determined. The old spirit of the puritans has returned to their children, and men in high places are in consequence standing aghast, astonished at what they witness, reluctant to forego their nefarious purpose, yet scarce daring to persist in the scheme.

Thousands of petitions with over two million signatures were presented to the House in opposition to the Factories Education Bill, whereupon Graham submitted amendments in an effort to appease the Dissenters. But to no avail. Petitions against the amended clauses contained nearly another two million signatures, and the measure was withdrawn.

It was during this agitation that support by Dissenters for state aid to education (provided it did not involve interference) transformed into opposition to all such aid. Edward Baines, Jr. – editor of the Leeds Mercury, the most influential provincial newspaper in England – described the transition: “The dangerous bill of Sir James Graham, and the evidence brought out of the ability and disposition of the people to supply the means of education, combined to convince the editors of the Mercury that it is far safer and better for Government not to interfere at all in the work; and from that time forward they distinctly advocated that view.”

The Voluntaryist philosophy crystallized quickly. In meetings of the Congregational Union held in Leeds (October 1843), Baines articulated the basic arguments against state education that he would develop in more detail over the next twenty years. The Congregational Union officially declared itself in favor of voluntary education. An education conference held at the Congregational Union in Leeds (December 1843) resolved that “all funds confided to the disposal of the central committee, in aid of schools, be granted only to schools sustained entirely by voluntary contributions.”

By 1846 the majority of Congregationalists and Baptists supported voluntary education. Leading Dissenting newspapers and journals – such as the Leeds Mercury, The Nonconformist, and The Eclectic Review – argued the case for Voluntaryism. Many Voluntaryists were active in the Anti‐​Corn Law League (which led a successful campaign to abolish import tariffs on grain), and they applied the principles of free trade to education. Voluntaryists energetically disputed reports which purported to show the deplorable condition of voluntary schools, and they accused government committees of misrepresenting facts and distorting evidence in order to buttress their case for government interference.

One important Voluntaryist was Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), a leading libertarian philosopher of his day. Although Spencer became an agnostic, he was home‐​schooled in Dissenting causes by his father and uncle. “Our family was essentially a dissenting family,” Spencer wrote in his Autobiography, “and dissent is an expression of antagonism to arbitrary control.” Much of Spencer’s first political article, written in his early twenties and published in The Nonconformist in 1842, was devoted to a critique of state education, and it possibly influenced the birth of the Voluntaryist movement in the following year.

Other prominent Dissenters who campaigned for Voluntaryism were Joseph Sturge (1793–1859), a Quaker pacifist who played an important role in the antislavery movement, Samuel Morley (1809–1886), Andrew Reed (1787–1862), Henry Richard (1812–1888), Edward Miall (1809–1881), and the previously mentioned Edward Baines, Jr. (1800–1890). Of these Miall and Baines were the most important.

Edward Miall founded and edited The Nonconformist, a periodical devoted to the separation of church and state and to the separation of school and state. Edward Baines, Jr., was the driving force behind Voluntaryism after 1843. Through his many pamphlets and articles, which combined theoretical arguments with detailed statistics, the case for Voluntaryism reached a wide audience throughout Britain.

Liberty was a basic concern of all Voluntaryists. Dissenters saw themselves in the tradition of John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke — defenders of individual rights and foes of oppressive government. Religious liberty in particular – freedom of conscience – was viewed as the great heritage of the Dissenting tradition, any violation of which should call forth “stern and indomitable resistance.”

Liberty should not be sacrificed for a greater good, argued the Dissenting minister and Voluntaryist Richard Hamilton: “There is no greater good. There can be no greater good! It is not simply means, it is an end. We love education, but there are things which we love better.” Education is best promoted by freedom, but should there ever be a conflict, “liberty is more precious than education.” “We love education,” Hamilton stated, “but there are things which we love better.” Edward Baines agreed that education is not the ultimate good: “Liberty is far more precious.” It is essential to “all the virtues which dignify men and communities.”

The preservation of individual freedom, according to most Voluntaryists, is the only legitimate function of government. The purpose of government, wrote Herbert Spencer in “The Proper Sphere of Government” (1842), is “to defend the natural rights of man – to protect person and property – to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak; in a word, to administer justice.” Edward Miall agreed that government is “an organ for the protection of life, liberty, and property; or, in other words, for the administration of justice.”

Government, an ever‐​present danger to liberty, must be watched with vigilance and suspicion. “The true lover of liberty,” stated The Eclectic Review, “will jealously examine all the plans and measures of government.”

He will seldom find himself called to help it, and to weigh down its scale. He will watch its increase of power with distrust. He will specially guard against conceding to it any thing which might be otherwise done. He would deprecate its undertaking of bridges, highways, railroads. He would foresee the immense mischief of its direction of hospitals and asylums. Government has enough on its hands — its own proper functions — nor need it to be overborne. There is a class of governments which are called paternal.…They exact a soulless obedience.…Nothing breathes and stirs.…The song of liberty is forgotten.…And when such governments tamper with education, the tyranny, instead of being relieved, is eternalized.

The concern of Voluntaryists for liberty can scarcely be exaggerated. Schemes of state education were denounced repeatedly as “the knell of English freedom,” an “assault on our constitutional liberties,” and so forth. Plans for government inspection of schools were likened to “government surveillance” and “universal espionage” that display “the police spirit.” And compulsory education was described as “child‐​kidnapping.”

Educational freedom is crucial, according to the Voluntaryists, because it is “an essential branch of civil freedom.” As Edward Baines put it:

A system of state education is a vast intellectual police, set to watch over the young at the most critical period of their existence, to prevent the intrusion of dangerous thoughts, and turn their minds into safe channels.

The Voluntaryists often drew parallels between educational freedom, on the one hand, and religious freedom, freedom of the press, and other civil liberties, on the other hand. As Baines noted, “We cannot violate the principles of liberty in regard to education, without furnishing at once a precedent and an inducement to violate them in regard to other matters.”

In my judgment, the State could not consistently assume the support and control of education, without assuming the support and control of both the pulpit and the press. Once decide that Government money and Government superintendence are essential in the schools, whether to insure efficiency, or to guard against abuse, ignorance, and error, and the self‐​same reasons will force you to apply Government money and Government superintendence to our periodical literature and our religious instruction.

Baines realized that a government need not carry the principle inherent in state education to its logical extreme, but he was disturbed by a precedent which gave to government the power of molding minds. If, as the proponents of state education argued, state education is required in order to promote civic virtue and form moral character, then, as Baines put it, “where, acting on these principles, could you consistently stop?”

Would not the same paternal care which is exerted to provide schools, schoolmasters, and school‐​books, be justly extended to provide mental food for the adult, and to guard against his food being poisoned? In short, would not the principle clearly justify the appointment of the Ministers of Religion, and a Censorship of the Press?

Baines conceded that there were deficiencies and imperfections in the system of voluntary education, but freedom should not be abrogated on this account. Again, he pointed to the example of a free press. A free press has many “defects and abuses”; certainly not all the products of a free press are praiseworthy. But if liberty is to be sacrificed in education in order to remedy deficiencies, then why not regulate and censor the press for the same reason? Baines employed this analogy in his brilliant rejoinder to the charge that he was an advocate of “bad schools.”

In one sense I am. I maintain that we have as much right to have wretched schools as to have wretched newspapers, wretched preachers, wretched books, wretched institutions, wretched political economists, wretched Members of Parliament, and wretched Ministers. You cannot proscribe all these things without proscribing liberty. The man is a simpleton who says, that to advocate Liberty is to advocate badness. The man is a quack and doctrinaire of the worst German breed, who would attempt to force all mind, whether individual or national, into a mould of ideal perfection, to stretch it out or to lop it down to his own Procrustean standard. I maintain that Liberty is the chief cause of excellence; but it would cease to be Liberty if you proscribed everything inferior. Cultivate giants if you please; but do not stifle dwarfs.

To the many state‐​school advocates who pointed to the Prussian system as a model, Baines retorted: “Nearly all the Continental Governments which pay and direct the school, pay and direct also the pulpit and the press. They do it consistently.”

The literature of nineteenth‐​century Voluntaryism is virtually unknown today, even among many libertarians. I can think of no argument against state education by modern libertarians that was not formulated, and often with more force and clarity, by the Voluntaryists. I shall present more of their arguments in my next essay.